TO OUTSIDERS, the scenes being played out on the beaches in southern France seem incomprehensible. Photographs from sun-kissed Nice on Tuesday showed armed French police asking a woman to remove her burkini, two-piece sportswear that is made up of a headscarf and long-sleeved tunic, and which is preferred by some Muslim women, among others. In Cannes, a woman wearing leggings, a tunic and a headscarf on the beach was given a ticket and told she was not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” The burkini police are on the move.
The burkini was invented in Australia some years ago. It does not cover the face and is not the same as a burqa, a more restrictive full-body garment. In recent weeks, the burkini has been banned by a dozen French resort towns — the latest was Nice, scene of a truck attack July 14 that killed 86 people. The burkini bans enjoy widespread support in France, which has been hit by three major terrorist attacks in the past year and a half and is still on tenterhooks.
The French have their logic. A strict form of secularism known as laïcité is enshrined in French law and has been the basis of previous French bans on headscarfs in state schools and the face-covering niqab in public. Also, many in France argue that the burkini is oppressive to women, epitomizing control over their bodies, and therefore should be banned in the name of freedom from coercion. The rallying cry has been that the burkini is an affront to French morals and secularism. The ban in Nice specifically refers to clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.”
There are certain security situations in which it is appropriate for rules to dictate what not to wear, such as prohibiting face masks when entering a bank. But banning the burkini is misguided. The effort seems to be propelled by an unspoken layer of bigotry, suspicion and hysteria about Muslims in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It is entirely possible to uphold France’s desire for secularism without the nanny state telling women what they can wear on a beach. Would the law also prohibit a nun from walking the pebbles of the Nice shoreline in her habit? As for women’s freedoms, is it established fact that women wearing burkinis have been coerced by men to do so? What if they want to wear them?
Certainly, some people may find it jarring to see a woman covered in this way. At other times, in other contexts, other people have found the uncovering of women just as jarring. This seems to be a situation in which the best answer is maximum freedom; the proper response is not to legislate but to let it be. The burkini is hurting no one, and leaving women to choose their own clothes would be a genuine achievement in pursuit of another venerable French concept: liberty.
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